Murderous learning – more reflections on adult education in crime fiction

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Recently I’ve been enjoying a crime novel by an Irish writer, Tana French. The Trespasser is set in Dublin, and its central character is Antoinette Conway, a hard-boiled murder squad detective of mixed race. The novel is interesting on belonging, family, gender, low-level racism, and internal hierarchies in the police. And it also touches upon adult education.

Aislinn, the murder victim, is described as a serial attender of evening classes. The detectives draw up a list of all the classes she took with a view to checking out ‘all the other students or whatever they call them’, a lead they pursue by looking though her financial records for fee payments.

I’d wondered whether this meant that the murder turned on an evening class, which would have been mightily entertaining. But no; Antoinette describes the list of evening classes as ‘depressing as hell’:

Aislinn genuinely paid actual money for a class called Restyle You!, with the exclamation mark, also one for wine appreciation, and something called Busy Babes Boot Camp.

So the evening classes turn out to be a side-alley, something the reader wonders about but which provide nothing by way of leads. Definitely not a plot device, then.

But the evening classes are nevertheless important: they tell the reader something about Aislinn’s character. Her serial pursuit of adult learning reflects Aislinn’s underlying uncertainty about who she is; and they signal her interest in adopting a new social role, restyling herself in order to explore the mystery of her own father’s disappearance.

Needless to say, hard-boiled Antoinette doesn’t think much of this, and indeed she tends to despise Aislinn more generally for being so unsure of herself, and for allowing her vanished father to dominate her life.  From this the reader concludes that Antoinette has dealt with her own childhood losses differently, so that perhaps the role of hard-boiled detective is itself a defensive performance of some kind.

As I say, an interesting novel, not only because of how it deploys adult learning. And  Antoinette’s rather cynical and dismissive view of adult learning, of course, is consistent with her seemingly hard-boiled character. So here is another fine example to add to my accounts of adult education and crime fiction in Germany, neither of which involve detectives who are ‘hard-boiled’.

As for the Busy Babes Boot Camp, no way would I let that pass by without investigating further. It turns out there is a clutch of similarly named fitness classes for Busy Moms, Busy Women, Busy Ladies, and Busy Girls. Busy Babes, though, is French’s invention

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Where New York leads: reflecting on market forces and adult learners

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Adult learning in the USA can be an expensive business. For example, New York University charges $125 to join a half-day course on Imperial London and $450 for six three-hour evening classes on Management Principles for Non-Profit Organisations. Presumably enough people are willing to pay these sums for the courses to be viable, but these eye-watering fees also mean that the States can provide many examples of alternative provision.

On a recent visit to New York I came across two cases of alternative provision. The first is the School of Practical Philosophy, which has been running since 1964. The School is registered as a not-for-profit, and describes itself as ‘run by its students on a voluntary basis’. Teachers are apparently not paid; fees vary but a ten week advanced course costs $175, while a one-day event on Plato will set you back $50 (including a Greek lunch and an evening wine reception).

Interestingly, the School has now established itself in the UK. According to its website it has venues across the north west of England, where its offer seems more geared towards mindfulness than the broader programme of its New York parent. I have no idea how successful it is.

The other private venture that intrigued me was the Brooklyn Brainery, the hipsterish name of a not-for-profit which describes its raison d’etre as ‘accessible, community-driven, crowdsourced education’. Its courses are relatively cheap ($13 for an evening on the history of gin, for example), interesting, and short, lasting mostly between one and four sessions. Its founders crowd-sourced the start-up funding, much of which went on premises, and are still involved in organising the programme.

I’m not setting these up as models for others to follow, though I think they are both pretty admirable, but rather as examples of the way in which adult learning doesn’t disappear simply because state agencies don’t provide everything. If established providers are too expensive, or too rigidly tied to qualifications and lengthy study programmes, then other bodies will flourish in the gaps. We’ve seen that here in the UK where the University of the Third Age has flowered for one large group of learners neglected by the public system .

The first obvious problem is who gets left behind in this process, which largely favours those who are already the most committed to investing in their own continuous learning. The second is that the content and pedagogy follow the interests and preferences of the most easily recruited learners.

And guess what: the popular courses are short, fun introductions to regional world cuisines, along with ‘how-to’ sessions on how to go about buying a house in New York City. Again, that’s not at all a Bad Thing, but it’s not going to solve our society’s most pressing problems. We still need to think about how adult learning can help us achieve the kinds of community we want, and then ensure that it receives a reasonable degree of public support.

More honours for U.K. adult educators

On April 3rd, I posted some reflections on the relationship between adult educators and the U.K. honours system. It triggered some very interesting comments, and also provoked a small torrent of names that I’d managed to miss. Shamefully, I have to admit that they include at least two good friends.

Here they are, anyway.

Joyce Connon (pictured), Scottish Secretary of the Workers Educational Association, received an OBE for services to community education in 2004

Margaret Davey, who was head of adult education in Croydon at the time she was awarded an OBE in 1996, and also a high profile advocate for adult learning

Jim Durcan, then Principal of Ruskin College, was honoured in 1999 with an OBE

Henry Arthur Jones, Principal of City Lit then Vaughan Professor at Leicester, was awarded a CBE in 1974 after making a signal contribution to the Russell Report

Peter Lavender, responsible for adult literacy in Norfolk and a high profile advocate of adult learning, received an OBE in 2006

Mark Malcolmson, Chief Executive of City Lit, received a CBE in 2017

Sue Pember, who as a civil servant helped design the Skills for Life programme, received an OBE in 2000

Ela Piotrowska, Principal of Morley College, received her OBE in 2013

David Sherlock, formerly head of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, got a CBE in 2006

Arthur Stock, Alan Tuckett’s predecessor at NIACE, received an OBE

Carole Stott, a leading figure in the Open College movement who recently announced that she is retiring as chair of the Association of Colleges, was awarded an MBE in 2012

Alan Wells, founder and long-serving director if the Basic Skills Agency, received an OBE

I’m sure this is nothing like an exhaustive list, and look forward to hearing of others that I’ve missed. Two possible further candidates suggested to me were Sir Michael Sadler, the pioneer of university extension in Britain, mainly because I think his knighthood was awarded for other public service (principally a major report on Indian education); and Sheila Carlton, champion of older learners and a stalwart of NIACE, for whose possible honour I could find no evidence.

Asa Briggs, who joined the House of Lords in 1976, chose to teach extra mural classes when appointed to a chair in Leeds, was chancellor of the Open University, and President of the WEA. But I think his baronetcy came as a result of his historical achievements.

It’s a long list, and it will likely get longer. What we don’t know is how many prominent adult educators refused honours, or indeed were considered ‘unsuitable ‘ on semi political grounds.

Adult educators and the UK honours system

Alan Tuckett

Arise, Sir Alan

I’ve been quietly celebrating the award of a knighthood to Alan Tuckett, a lifelong adult educator who is probably best known for his leadership of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education. Celebrating because the award acknowledges the way in which Alan didn’t simply ‘do his job’, but used his position to provide leadership and visibility for the wider field of adult learning, so that the knighthood can be understood as a public recognition of an important but often overlooked field.

All of this said, I don’t approve of the UK honours system on principle. The system rests on patronage and has been thoroughly tainted by cronyism and rewards for people – notably civil servants – who simply have ‘done their job’. It perpetuates the language of Empire and aristocratic rule, so I find it hard to see how it sits with the egalitarian and meritocratic world of adult education.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of Alan, who will no doubt exploit the platform afforded by his knighthood to argue the case for adult learners and those who work with them. Disagreeing with your friends’ decisions is just a part of life. But I now wonder about other leading British adult educators in the past: how many were offered honours, and how many accepted?

Answering these questions proved harder than I’d expected, but here is what I’ve found so far – thanks partly to a Twitter exchange with John Holford and Alan, and partly to a largely frustrating trawl online.

Albert Mansbridge, co-founder of the Workers’ Educational Association and its first secretary, became a Companion of Honour in 1931.

William Emrys Williams, secretary of the British Institute of Adult Education from 1925 and director of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs during WW2, was awarded a CBE and a knighthood. While his CBE was awarded in 1946, his knighthood came as a result of his work at the Arts Council and as Editor-in-Chief at Penguin Books.

Basil Yeaxlee, secretary to the much-discussed 1919 Report on Adult Education and secretary of the Educational Settlements Association, and author of a doctoral thesis on spiritual values in adult education, received his CBE in the same year as Williams. Like Williams, he received this honour in recognition of his contribution to services education and welfare during WW2.

More recently, Bob Fryer – Principal of Northern College and chief executive of the NHS University – was made a Companion of the British Empire in 1999. I assume there are other recent cases that I’ve either forgotten about or didn’t hear about in the first place.

Then there are those who refused, or weren’t offered in the first place. EP Thompson, Raymond Williams, Michael Barratt Brown, Raphael Samuel and Sheila Rowbotham were all associated with what would today probably be called the ‘hard Left’, and I very much doubt whether it entered anyone’s mind to offer them an honour.

Elizabeth Monkhouse, a leading figure in the Workers’ Educational Association and a prominent acdemic who served on the Russell Committee, does not seem to have taken an honour. Given her eminent record of public service, I find it hard to believe that she did not receive – and therefore reject – the offer of an honour.

Richard Hoggart, on the other hand, refused offers of both a knighthood and peerage. Like Williams and Thompson, Hoggart was shaped by a career in extra-mural teaching, who served as assistant director of UNESCO and as warden of Goldsmiths College.

Robert Peers, the UK’s first professor of adult education, does not appear to have been offered an honour; neither does Sydney Raybould, pre-eminent amoung the post-war adult education academics.

Others might be counted as adult educators depending on how you define that rather loose term. Sir Richard Livingstone, for example, did much to champion residential adult education, but was knighted for his role in university management.

And then there are the ‘genuine’ aristocrats who actively promoted adult learning. Trudie Pearson, first national chair of the Women’s Institutes in Britain, and later director of the Women’s Land Army, became Lady Denman on her marriage to the third Baron. The WI’s residential adult college is named after her.

My list of adult educators with honours is regreattably brief. If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them.  Meanwhile, arise Sir Alan, and more power to your elbow!

A new focus on adult skills in Germany?

Inside Germany, news of the coalition agreement was met more with grudging relief than enthusiasm. It followed an election in which both main parties haemorrhaged support; for the Christian Democrats, the outcome probably spells the beginning of the end for Angela Merkel’s long period of political dominance, while the Social Democrats’ loss of support is starting to look existential.

So the new coalition is a partnership of two weakened, and possible vulnerable, political giants. Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats will jointly be ruling Europe’s largest economy, which is also by far the EU’s most influential member. So regarless of any internal weakness, it is well worth looking at the text of the coalition agreement – and, given my interests, you won’t be surprised that I’ve been keen to see whether it mentions the broad area of lifelong learning.

In fact, the agreement pays a remarkable amount of attention to adult and/or continuing education:

  • Chapter Four – which is devoted to an ‘Offensive for Education, Research and Digitisation’ places a strong emphasis on the role of public policy in securing adult skills. It promises a national strategy for continuing education, focusing mainly but not exclusively on its role in securing digital skills.
  • Chapter Five, on ‘Securing Good Work, Wide Security, and Social Participation’, speaks about a strong, broad alliance for lifelong learning in digital skills.

It should be clear that the priority here is workforce skills, and above all digital skills. In this the new strategy will be building on the existing initiative ‘Berufsbildung 4.0‘ (vocational education for the fourth industrial revolution), as well as continuing earlier atttempts to improve possibilities for mobility between roles.

However, the agreement also stresses that opportunities for digital updating should be available to people ‘at any age and in any life situation’, and looks to the public Volkshochschulen to play a central role in delivering the new digital skills. It also promises to develop basic workplace and family skills provision as part of Germany’s national decade for literacy (2016-2026).

This aspect of the coalition agreement almost certainly reflects the hopes and priorities of the Social Democrats. While it will have to be implemented by Anja Karliczek, the minister for education and science, who is a Christian Democrat, the finance minister is a Social Democrat.

This matters, because financial means will not be easy to come by. The adult education section of the German teachers’ union has broadly welcomed the agreement’s potential for developing workorce continuing education, but pointed out reasonably enough that it says next to nothing about funding. That is a task for the new minister and the new Parliament, and it is here that the weakened standing of both partners may come into play.

Research, Policy, and Practice in Lifelong Learning

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The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning has chosen to focus on ‘Research, Policy and Practice‘ for its 2018 conference. You will find the call for papers on the UALL website, and it promises to be a lively and constructive event. Given the poor health of adult learning across the four UK nations, it also seems particularly timely.

I’ll be interested to see how researchers and practitioners now understand and address this triangular relationship. Ideas of evidence-based practice have not often found an enthusiastic reception in adult or further education, partly because of a (not unreasonable) suspicion of outside experts floating in to a field where expertise so often draws on experience, partly because ‘what works’ can change dramatically between one context and another, and partly because some academics are rather precious about avoiding a whiff of application.

Now might be a good time for moving beyond such unproductive refusals and to develop further the existing dialogues between research and practice over the types of evidence we need, and how best to use it. Academic researchers are now under considerable pressure to show that people read and use their findings, and practitioners are often required to justify their practice. This offers quite an opportunity.

As for policy, though, where do you begin? Evidence for the benefits of adult learning is not hard to find. My own overview of UK longitudinal studies – which show marked gains for individual learners and their communities, as well as gains for employers – is far and away my most frequently downloaded publication. The OECD survey of adult skills, usually known by its acronym of PIAAC, provides an international insight into these effects. UNESCO devoted its Third Global Report on Adult Learning to a review of research, and found clear support for positive effects on health and well-being, employment and the labour market, and community life and social capital.

So in principle it should be easy to persuade policymakers to consider treating adult learning as an intervention with a proven record of success. In practice, this has not been easy. The evidence base is still not as strong as it could be (for example, is adult learning more effective and less costly than other ways of achieving the same effects?), and I’m not sure we have still figured out what the distribution of benefits might mean for funding the system.

A second problem is, bluntly, the reluctance of policymakers to listen to the evidence and discuss the implications. Very few politicians, employers or senior civil servants have much direct experience of adult or further education. There are exceptions, of course: David Blunkett was an unusual Secretary of State in that he had been an adult student, is an alumnus of the Huddersfield postgraduate certificate in further education, and taught in Barnsley College. And among current MPs, Chi Onwurah and David Lammy for Labour and Caroline Dinenage for the Conservatives have all actively promoted debate over greater public support for adult learning.

So there are grounds for hope, but any chance of effective influence on policymakers will require a much stronger and long term commitment than most researchers in adult learning have shown so far. It will also require dialogue with politicians while in opposition, rather than contacting them for the first time when they are in power. In England, this is something that NIACE used to be very good at, and I hope that the Learning and Work Institute can build on this. But the issues are too important for researchers to hope that they can leave the job to others.

 

Checking the health of adult learning research

I’ve just spent an enjoyable and stimulating day at the 2017 SCUTREA conference.  The acronym represents a rather unwieldy title, the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults, and it is best understood as the main UK gathering for researchers in adult learning.

For many years SCUTREA drew its audience from academics working in specialist adult education departments. There are fewer of these than in the past, but SCUTREA has held up rather well, and it coninues to be a lively, congenial and stimulating event. What does this tell us about the state of our field?

First, it continues to attract a decent level of participation. Eightynine people registered for this year’s event, which is about the same level as for other SCUTREA conferences in recent years, and the sessions I attended provoked a healthy level of debate. Almost all the participants also offered papers, many looking at adult learning through perspectives influenced by postcolonialism, intersectionality, and queer theory.

Just by way of contrast, I pulled out a copy of the SCUTREA papers from 1982, when there were 11 presentations and 61 delegates, plus 5 ‘observers’ (I wonder whether the observers were allowed to speak). You can see from the titles that the contents were largely empirical with a focus on practice.

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SCUTREA has always attracted overseas researchers, and I was interested to see that this year they outnumbered the 39 UK delegates. Though I haven’t checked, I don’t remember this happening in previous years. What was more familiar was the source of the overseas participants: most came from Anglophone nations, with 14 from Canada, 12 from the USA, 4 from Ireland and 2 from Australia. Only 11 came from continental Europe, with the largest contingents coming from Sweden (4) and Germany (3).

The UK delegates came from 18 different HEIs and one residential college. The largest group from any one institution came from Huddersfield, whose Centre for Research in Education and Society is clearly thriving. In 1982, the largest contingent (7) were from Nottingham. My sense is that the centre of gravity in our field is shifting toward the post-92 HEIs, whose role in further education teacher education gives them a critical mass of academics.

I’ve taken SCUTREA conferences before as a health check for research in our field; so what can we conclude from the 2017 event? I think my own conclusions are firstly that adult learning continues to provide an important focus for research, and that SCUTREA continues to provide asignificant forum for parts of that research. I also think that SCUTREA has a job on its hands to attract a larger share of the UK research community in our field. Taking the long view, though, it is clearly doing fine!